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WisBusiness: TDS' Tech Women Tops in Their Field

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – In the worlds of information technology and engineering, it's no secret that women are under-represented, especially at the executive level.

But not at TDS Telecom, where the top two IT/network "guys" are female.

The pair are Leslie Hearn, whose title is vice president of information systems and chief information officer; and Lisa Cvengros, executive vice president of technology and service delivery. She is also the company's chief technology officer.

Cvengros, who has an engineering background, is in charge of 1,800 employees -- roughly half of the company's workers. Hearn, who earned her first degree in math, supervises more than 270 employees and consultants and reports to Cvengros.

Leslie Hearn (left) and Lisa Cvengros hold the top IT positions at TDS Telecom.

Drew Petersen, spokesman for TDS, said the pair are not only leaders for their gender but have pushed innovation at the company.

"They've taken risks and I think that is one of the things -- besides customer care, price, service and quality -- that sets us apart from our competitors," he said. "Our network is robust and we are constantly trying to evolve. We offer high-speed Internet service to some pretty remote places."

Both Hearn and Cvengros say they want to encourage young women to enter the IT and telecommunications fields. In addition, neither said they felt back by their gender, though they did experience some subtle prejudice.

"Sometimes people have thought I was the secretary at a meeting, but I never let it bother me and kept moving forward," said Cvengros, who said she had women mentors at her first job at Wisconsin Bell.

Cvengros is a Marquette University electrical engineering graduate who started with TDS in 1997 as director of network management. She came to TDS from the Bell and Ameritech systems, where she'd been a manager.

As a high school student, she attended a Notre Dame summer engineering program for girls. Her father, an engineer, also encouraged her to follow his career path.

"At the end of the day, engineering taught me how to solve problems," she said. "And if you think about the business world, that's what we do all day."

Cvengros -- who earned her MBA from UW-Whitewater -- made the jump to TDS, she said, because she was looking for "opportunities" in Madison, calling it "a wonderful place to live."

Over time, she said she looked for and was given more responsibility at TDS, which grants scholarships to encourage women to study information technology.

"This has been a great place to work," said Cvengros.

Hearn, who has been at TDS for a decade, earned a bachelor's degree in math and a master's in finance from the University of Illinois. The Chicago native left a doctoral program in finance to pursue software work as a consultant.

She then worked for a Colorado phone company doing product development. She also has seven years experience as a consultant, part of that time with Cap Gemini America, working with clients on their IT strategy and project management.

In Madison, she has held leadership positions in a broad range of areas, from information technology to product development as well as voice and data network management.

She worked for Cvengros in network services and assumed her current position a year ago.

"Mentoring is important," Hearn said. "And I certainly am grateful to Lisa for having this opportunity."

Experts in women in business and technology said it is remarkable to have females in the top IT leadership roles at a major telecom company.

Anne Miner, a UW-Madison business professor, said it is unclear why the number of women – who make up less than a quarter of IT professionals – remains low, while the number of women becoming doctors now equals that of men.

"The same thing is true in engineering, where women are also under-represented," said Miner, a former affirmative action officer at Stanford University who has studied human resource issues for decades.

She said it's not realistic to blame the low number of women in IT on "bad men" keeping them out.

"We don't know if it is inclinations or desires of women or something else," she said. "It remains a puzzle."

Thirty years ago, she said it was assumed women would excel in technology because, odd as it now sounds, the field didn't take a lot of upper body strength.

"There remain pools and pockets where women remain underrepresented and IT is one of them," she added. "And that makes it even more impressive that the top two technology executives at TDS are female."

Claudia Morrell, executive director of the Center for Women in Information Technology at the University of Maryland, said research from the National Science Foundation indicates "the culture and climate of IT is often not especially welcoming to women."

Moreover, she said, girls get the message early -- often from their mothers -- that technology is a boys' field. By the time they get to high school, most girls are opting out of high-tech courses, she added.

Ironically, the ones who do go into computer science are often influenced by their fathers, she said.

Though medicine can be very high-tech, she said women have made huge gains there because, in part, the profession is seen as "caring" rather than machine-oriented.

Similarly, women are making big advances in the biological fields because they are seen as "warm and fuzzy," she said.

Conversely, the number of women in high-tech firms remains low, and females in executive positions in those companies is around 11 percent, according to Catalyst, an organization that tracks women in business.

Hearn credits TDS for recognizing and rewarding contributions to the company.

"TDS wants to get the job done," she said. "And if he - or she – takes the challenge and does that, there are rewards no matter what your gender."

Hearn said she had seen what she described as dramatic changes for women in her nearly 30-year career.

"When I started in software development, it seemed like only men were doing that," she said. "And in the beginning, you could get pushed around. But it helped a lot that I had a math background. Fortunately, people I worked with were somewhat in awe of that.

"I don't want to knock engineers," she laughed. "But it was a good way to keep them at bay."

Likewise, she was surrounded by men when she worked as a consultant.

"But that's changed too, and we are seeing more and more women in those jobs," noted Hearn, who said girls need to be encouraged to pursue careers in math, science, engineering and IT.

"I'm a mom with a 12-year-old daughter and it's a national concern because young people become the pool from which people are chosen for jobs like we have," she said.

Ironically, Hearn's daughter "hates" math, she said.

"And don't think it doesn't break my heart," she mused. "And my son, who is quite good at it, doesn't like it either."

Hearn said she tries to be an active mentor and coach for people who work for her.

"I'd like to do more, but I'm a working mom," she said. "I spoke recently at MATC (Madison Area Technical College) and had quite a response. And I am concerned about getting more young women interested in math and IT."

Hearn said she wished women knew that IT jobs mean more than working with machines.

"Unfortunately, that's the way it's often depicted in society generally and in schools," she said. "IT is also about complex problem solving, breaking things apart and communicating with people."

But Hearn and Cvengros said they believe a change might be coming as the profession is evolving in ways that should attract more women into telecommunications.

"The new breed of IT people are more about getting things done for a business," said Hearn. "And I think women are very good at solving problems."


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